Pakistan : the “pir” tradition, an example of how religion and politics can mingle

Actor playing a comedy during a death commemoration in a muslim cemetery. Pakistan.

Sufism is the muslim mystical way. It completes the “sharia”, the islamic law, and it reveals the hidden signification of the Koran. It has been introduced in the indian sub-continent initially by saints, then by congregations from the 13° century. These brotherhoods are the Chishtiyya ( from Afghanistan), the Suhrawardiyya ( hailing from the Near-East), the Qadiriyya ( that came from Irak in the 15° century) and the Naqshabandiyya ( coming from Central Asia in the 16° century).

In Pakistan, particularly in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, sufism is most of the time a cult dedicated to local saints (“pir”), supposed to have the power to intercede near Allah. Throughout the country, there are many sanctuaries (“dargah”) managed by the descendants of a spiritual master ( the descendants are also called “pir”). These sanctuaries shelter the tombs of the saints and are visited through the year by many faithful. Some of these shrines are even supposed to contain Muhammad’s relics. ( Something unthinkable for the muslim orthodoxy !) Be they muslim or hindu, sunni or shia, visitors come to these mausoleums to receive the benediction of the saint. Because we are in the indian sub-continent, the relationship between the “pir” and the disciple (“murîd”) looks like the relationship between the guru and his “chela”, the hindu disciple. The anniversary of the death of a saint (“urs”) is the main yearly festival. It attracts many pilgrims, sometimes hundreds of thousands. One of the main mausoleum in Pakistan is the one of Data Ganj Bakhsh, the patron saint of Lahore.

Because people believe “pir” have inherited the “baraka”, the religious charisma that bring chance, “pir” are very influential in the Pakistani society. Donations given by the faithful are their own. So, they are wealthy and possess immenses domains. And religious and social life allow them to nurture strong ties with their disciples. It’s an open door for clientelism. That’s why “dargah” are an important political issue in the country.


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